Thomas Hardy: A Beginner's Guide.
Abbott, Rob, and Charlie Bell. London:
Hodder and Stoughton, 2001. Pp. 88. ISBN 0340800364. £5.99, paper.
Thomas Hardy: A Beginner's Guide is just that--a guide for the student or adult reader alike, who knows little to nothing about Hardy and is approaching his works for the very first time. With simple, easy to read prose, this handy little guide--more substantial and broader in scope than the perennially popular Cliff's Notes--provides an overview of Hardy's major themes (or "obsessions" as the authors call them) as well as a few fairly in-depth explorations of major works. In the margins, as well as at the end of the book, there are definitions of unfamiliar terms, and each chapter
closes with a summary of main points. In addition, cute illustrations accompany the text, much in the vein of the "90 Minute Philosophers" series, providing a touch of humour and the visual cues that are so important to students in our "post literary" age. There is also well-placed advice to switch off modern sensibilities before reading Hardy.
While cautioning the reader not to take biographical connections too much to heart, Abbott and Bell provide relevant details about Hardy's life and background. After all, we all crave human faces for our authors. And many issues and events in Hardy's work are obviously connected to his life. The authors do an admirable job of explaining, in a short space, Hardy's historical relevance in recording the passing of rural traditions, the impact of the spread of railways, and other issues. However, their emphasis on the strictly fictional nature of Wessex I find somewhat misleading, since Hardy really did write about a tangible world he knew and lived in.
The book is mostly concerned with the novels, although discussion of "The Withered Arm" is included as well as a chapter on the poems. The authors' obvious preference for Tess (a preference I share) is apparent in numerous references to the novel as well as a section specifically devoted to it. While the discussion of Tess is perceptive, it raises some issues of problems in her character that could perplex the novice rather than lead to further and deeper understanding. In particular, a reference to Claridge's assertion that Tess "'chooses her sexual initiation'" seems out of place and could lead to students' failure to see the events in the Chase as anything more problematic than simple seduction. That said, the discussion of the novel's visual impact and the role of landscape is perceptive and helpful to the beginning reader. In other words, it opens doors to possibilities in interpretation, rather than tending to lead the reader to a particular passageway.
The discussion of Jude includes a well-constructed explanation of the dichotomies inherent within Jude's and Sue's characters and provides a useful overview of the major themes of the book. The handling of the The Mayor of Casterbridge , on the other hand, seems a bit reductive, focusing on the role of secrets in the book and little more. The authors use A Pair of Blue Eyes as an entry into most of Hardy's major themes, which seems an innovative way to encourage readers to try out one of his "lesser" works.
In the poetry chapter, there is a nice explication of "The Oxen" and a brief discussion of the Emma poems in their context. Both are useful and could encourage a novice reader to look further. There is also a good explanation of modernism, Hardy's tentative entry into that realm, and the under-appreciation of his poetry by the modernists themselves who failed to see Hardy's essential
My chief complaints with these sections lie mainly in an over reliance on secondary works for details not found in the novels and poems themselves. For instance, when quoting Dr. Acton, the source is Boumelha, not Acton (16). Seymour-Smith, whose questionable reliability was the focus of a lively Forum discussion, is cited several times, including as a source for a quote from Hardy's own letters. How about Millgate and Purdy? In the section "Hardy as a Victorian Thinker", the authors mention Darwin and Mill as influences upon Hardy's thought, but only Darwin is explored at any length (17-18). Finally, in the section on "Marriage and Divorce" appears the following:
In Tess, Angel Clare is seen at the end of the novel married to Liza-Lu. This marriage would in fact have been illegal until the passing of the Deceased Wife's Sister Act in 1907. It would also have been seen as incestuous.
If such a marriage had taken place, it would also be bigamous, since the two are watching for the signal that Tess has been executed, implying she isn't dead when they arrive hand in hand. This is a serious gaffe and quite a leading assumption to make in a book aimed at beginners.
A Beginner's Guide closes with a discussion of further sources for learning about Hardy. There is an exploration of criticism in a general sense, with a comment that it has much improved in recent years. The discussion of feminist responses, and their various shifts, would be especially helpful to a student attempting to decipher diametrically opposed feminist interpretations. The explanations of structuralism and post-structuralism--complete with examples--I found particularly useful to the non-literary critic.
Also included are suggestions not just for explicating the texts, but for increasing enthusiasm for Hardy. The authors suggest reading the novels in chronological order for an appreciation of his development as a writer as well as suggesting other less traditional places to turn for information. Holding place of prominence are the TTHA and the Thomas Hardy Society and mail and web addresses are included. Descriptions of Max Gate and the Hardy Museum are accompanied by hours of operation.
Overall, this is an excellent means for the novice reader to gain some overall familiarty with Hardy's works, before or while reading him for the first time. It is successful in demystifying some of the more prevalent themes, making it definitely worth a read.
Shannon Rogers -- published The Hardy Review, Vol VI: 2003 (order form)
Saint Joseph's University